‘Not a businessman’: Hong Kong’s next chief faces test on economy | Coronavirus pandemic

Hong Kong, China – Hong Kong’s leader-in-waiting, John Lee, has likened himself to a conductor with the flexibility to steer a “new symphony” for the worldwide monetary hub.

Lee, who’s working unopposed as the one “validly nominated candidate” in a tightly-controlled, small-circle election on Could 8, has his work reduce out for him.

Lee will inherit a metropolis languishing from two years of political crackdowns and strict pandemic insurance policies, which have fuelled an exodus of highly-skilled professionals and turned the once-thriving worldwide enterprise centre into one of many world’s most remoted cities.

Rolling out his 44-page political manifesto final week, Lee promised to breathe life again into the economic system, sort out town’s housing disaster, curb rising unemployment and strengthen governance.

However any hope of restoring town’s lustre should cope with Beijing’s uncompromising efforts to crush dissent and get rid of COVID-19 below a draconian “dynamic zero COVID” technique.

Beijing’s endorsement of Lee, previously Hong Kong’s quantity two official, has been broadly seen as an indication of China’s prioritisation of security over business. A former safety chief and profession police officer, Lee lacks the enterprise expertise of a few of his predecessors, which embody a property surveyor and a billionaire transport tycoon.

Lee led the response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and oversaw the arrests of dozens of individuals below a controversial nationwide safety regulation that has silenced virtually all crucial voices in politics, civil society and media.

Tara Joseph, the previous president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, described it as “flabbergasting” {that a} enterprise hub like Hong Kong will probably be led by somebody with no industrial expertise.

“He could also be a decisive chief. He might make town perform higher. That’s true. However he’s not a businessman. He doesn’t have hyperlinks to enterprise,” Joseph, who’s now senior director of US agency Technique Dangers, informed Al Jazeera. “He has hyperlinks to the safety equipment.”

Joseph, who left Hong Kong partly due to town’s strict pandemic measures, mentioned the “jury’s out” on whether or not Lee or some other chief will probably be allowed to distinguish Hong Kong’s COVID coverage from that of the mainland.

“The longer the dearth of connectivity continues in Hong Kong, the extra hurt it’s doing. We all know how many individuals are leaving. We all know it’s been very dangerous,” she mentioned.

Hong Kong skyline
Hong Kong has skilled an exodus of execs after greater than two years of political crackdowns and strict pandemic guidelines [File: Peter Park/AFP]

Professional-Beijing figures insist that Lee’s give attention to safety is not going to come on the expense of the economic system.

Former Finance Minister Frederick Ma mentioned he’s assured Lee will encompass himself with enterprise savvy advisers who will help steer the economic system.

“If you’re chief you depend on folks,” Ma informed Al Jazeera. “He must get succesful folks to assist. And if he manages to get succesful folks and so they work as a staff, I might be optimistic concerning the future. I absolutely have hope.”

Ma mentioned will probably be necessary for the subsequent chief to resolve uncertainty concerning the metropolis’s pandemic technique, which has prioritised reopening the borders with mainland China above the remainder of the world however failed to revive quarantine-free journey with both.

“I believe what’s secret is it’s essential to decide, in case you’re going to open the mainland border, do it, however if you wish to comply with the worldwide method, then do it that method,” he mentioned.

Lee has mentioned Hong Kong should “increase its worldwide connectivity” and “set up a extra beneficial enterprise atmosphere”, whereas additionally emphasising the necessity to reconnect town with the mainland.

Whereas Hong Kong just lately diminished lodge quarantine from 14 to seven days and lifted a ban on the entry of non-residents, the steps are broadly seen as inadequate to carry again worldwide travellers.

“With out opening the borders, Hong Kong will probably be minimising its alternatives for worldwide enterprise growth,” George Cautherley, a Hong Kong-based businessman, informed Al Jazeera. “I don’t assume there’s any various.”

‘Two bosses’

Lee has chosen a 148-strong advisory staff of highly effective businessmen and politicians, together with town’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, and leisure tycoon and property developer Allan Zeman.

Zeman mentioned he believes Lee will provoke negotiations with China to discover a strategy to reopen the border with the mainland.

“Lee is results-oriented, and he’s a doer, and he is aware of what must be executed, and I believe popping out of safety, he has a unique [kind of] respect from folks, particularly from Beijing,” Zeman informed Al Jazeera.

“It’s not a straightforward place for anybody,” added Zeman, explaining town is caught between the necessity to reopen to the world and reconnect with the mainland, which is cautious of coronavirus instances coming throughout its land border.

“So you need to negotiate with two bosses.”

Ronny Tong, an adviser to present Chief Govt Carrie Lam, mentioned he additionally believes Lee will sort out Hong Kong’s reopening as a prime precedence.

“So far as the struggle towards COVID-19 and opening the border of Hong Kong once more, I’m positive that is a part of the mandatory path with a purpose to revitalise the economic system of Hong Kong, and I’m positive this might be the primary process that he would attend to if and when he will get elected,” Tong informed Al Jazeera.

Lee has beforehand sought to make the case that he’s not beholden to any enterprise curiosity teams, and due to this fact comes “with out baggage”.

“My major concern is the general curiosity, as a substitute of the curiosity of any sure sector,” he mentioned at a press briefing final month.

A spokesperson on the Hong Kong Common Chamber of Commerce mentioned John Lee “brings a brand new mindset to the administration”.

“Lee has pledged to work along with the general public and enterprise to sort out Hong Kong’s longstanding points, such because the scarcity of housing,” the spokesperson mentioned. “So with a transparent consensus and roadmap, we’re assured town will have the ability to bounce again.”

Hong Kong airport
Hong Kong has turn out to be one of many world’s most remoted cities below China’s ‘dynamic zero COVID’ technique [File: Lam Yik/Reuters]

Jonathan Slone, former Asia chair at Jefferies Group, who’s now a non-public investor, mentioned he sees the economic system turning into “a much bigger and larger focus” below the brand new administration.

“I believe they’ll be fairly sensible,” Slone informed Al Jazeera. “Is the enterprise neighborhood going to get every part it desires? No, however I believe that these guys know that the economic system must get going.”

Others are extra sceptical.

Professional-democracy businessman Herbert Chow mentioned Lee has been given an “inconceivable process” in terms of jumpstarting the economic system.

“We’ll see how he can steadiness that with breaking the cycle of going forwards and backwards, faucet dancing on leisure versus the retightening of COVID guidelines,” Chow informed Al Jazeera.

Chow mentioned he believes most companies “don’t care” about whether or not Lee, who has pledged to introduce extra nationwide safety laws, will speed up the crackdown on dissent.

“I believe a lot of the enterprise neighborhood is not going to care an excessive amount of about how the police restore the connection with residents, or whether or not Hong Kong continues to be a police state,” mentioned Chow, who final 12 months introduced his intention to relocate his youngsters’s clothes model Chickeeduck abroad as a result of strain from the authorities.

Requested whether or not Hong Kong may return to its glory days, Joseph, the previous AmCham president, mentioned town is a “new regular”.

“And I believe folks might want to regulate to that,” she mentioned. “Hong Kong shouldn’t be globally linked in the identical method any extra, so there are dangers with it. It might discover a method out of this mess, however rather more as a metropolis in China.”

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